With India without three of their four first-choice quicks, T Natarajan presents an alluring option for the tourists ahead of the upcoming SCG Test.

India levelling the ongoing Border-Gavaskar Trophy series between themselves and Australia at the MCG was an impressive achievement in its own right after their humiliation at Adelaide. But doing so without so many of their regular XI available, put the win on another pedestal altogether.

Regular captain Virat Kohli had flown home to India to attend the birth of his first child, Rohit Sharma missed the first two Tests of the series through injury while quicks Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma had already been ruled out of the series. Their absence was compounded by Umesh Yadav picking up a calf injury early on in the Australian second innings at the MCG, leaving India without three of their four first-choice pace bowlers for the second half of a challenging and already closely fought series.

That leaves one of Navdeep Saini, T Natarajan or Shardul Thakur likely to play in the third Test at the SCG, three exciting quicks who differ stylistically and who all lack experience at Test level. Neither Saini nor Natarajan have played a Test match while Thakur’s sole Test outing came to a painfully premature end in just his second over as he limped off the field with a groin strain against West Indies in 2018.

Saini was the only one of the three announced in the original Test squad back in November, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the frontrunner. After all, Mohammed Siraj – who wasn’t named in the original squad – leapfrogged him in the queue for a berth at the MCG Test; Saini’s inconsistent performances in the ODI series and warm-up game that preceded the Tests may count against him.

Reports in India suggest Thakur, who is currently in Australia as a net bowler, could be the one to get the nod, owing to his more extensive first-class experience. But for all the merits of including either Saini or Thakur, picking Natarajan could be the most tempting call of the lot.

Natarajan’s recent rise has been meteoric. The 29-year-old left-arm quick only made his first-class debut in 2015 and despite getting an IPL gig with Kings XI Punjab in 2017, he only made six appearances for the franchise and didn’t appear in the tournament again until 2020.

One of the stars of the tournament with Sunrisers Hyderabad, regularly earning praise for his accuracy at the death in particular, Natarajan won a maiden international call-up for the white-ball tour of Australia that followed it. Natarajan featured in all three T20Is and was arguably the bowler of the series, conceding his runs at fewer than seven an over.

It would be unfair to pigeonhole Natarajan as a white-ball specialist, though. In the 2019/20 Ranji Trophy, took 18 wickets at 17.94 and prior to the start of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, he was supposedly one of the most threatening Indian bowlers during their team net sessions. Cricbuzz journalist Bharat Sundaresan told Melinda Farrell’s YouTube channel before the first Test at Adelaide: “He was beating Kohli, he was beating Pujara, he was hitting Pujara on the pads, he was beating Rahane. That’s India’s engine room, that’s India’s best three Test batsmen over the last decade and if he’s beating them – beating the outside edge, beating the inside edge – then could he be in the Test squad?”

Realistically, India will look to pick the bowler who offers them the most control. Their MCG win was built on the foundations of a wonderfully disciplined bowling performance, with the hosts scoring at fewer than two runs per over in their second innings despite India being a bowler down. Saini went at more than five runs per over in the second innings of India’s warm-up fixture against Australia A, so India may not yet want to trust him with a spot in the XI which leaves Thakur and Natarajan. Thakur is more of a known quantity so is arguably the pragmatic option but Natarajan is the man who sets pulses racing and who has yet to disappoint at any of the challenges thrown towards him. T Natarajan, a cricketer who supposedly only started playing with a hard ball at the age of 20, could cap off his extraordinary rise by helping India seal another historic series win Down Under.